Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

When Does Service-Learning Work? Contact Theory and Service-Learning Courses in Higher Education

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

When Does Service-Learning Work? Contact Theory and Service-Learning Courses in Higher Education

Article excerpt

Service-learning experiences have the potential to improve participants' attitudes and values toward those whom they serve, but if the experience is poorly designed or poorly implemented, it runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes and deficit perspectives of the intended beneficiaries of service. This study examines the extent to which Contact Theory predicts the efficacy of service-learning courses in promoting positive attitude change among participants. Contact Theory stipulates the conditions under which attitude change toward an "out-group" becomes possible. Comparing pre-test and post-test scores for 220 students enrolled in service-learning courses in two different institutions, we find that courses that reflect more tenets of Contact Theory are more effective than those less aligned with Contact Theory in reducing students' overall colorblindness and improving their awareness of blatant racial issues.

Many who practice service-learning have the goal of affecting participants' attitudes and values, and research suggests that service-learning has the potential to impact learners in ways other forms of teaching may not (Delve, Mintz, & Stewart, 1990; Holsapple, 2012). Service-learning has been found to be associated with a host of positive outcomes, including greater sensitivity and empathy (Bernacki & Jaeger, 2008; Wilson, 2001); increased commitments to social justice (Eppler, Ironsmith, Dingle, & Erickson, 2011; Fenzel & Dean, 2011; Simons, Blank, Fehr, Barnes, Georganas, & Manapuram, 2012); improved cultural competence or multicultural skills (Einfeld & Collins, 2008; Meaney, Bohler, Kopf, Hernandez, & Scott, 2008); and stereotype reduction (Conner, 2010a; Meaney et al., 2008; Wright, Calabrese, & Henry, 2009). However, previous research also cautions that when poorly implemented, service-learning may result in unanticipated outcomes, such as increased prejudice and bias on the part of learners toward the very groups intended to benefit from their service (Erickson & O'Connor, 2000; Erickson & Santmire, 2001; Hollis, 2004; Jones, 2002; Kendall, 1990; Sperling, 2007). Those attempting to implement service-learning in their classrooms may actually do more harm than good if they engage students in service-learning experiences that afford casual contact; that is, contact between groups that is short-term, superficial, and lacking deep mutual engagement (Erickson & O'Connor, 2000; Erickson & Santmi-er, 2001; Houshmand, Spanierman, Beer, Poteat, & Lawson, 2014). According to Allport (1984), "Such evidence as we have clearly indicates that such contact does not dispel prejudice; it seems more likely to increase it" (p. 263).

Changing attitudes and beliefs involves substantial reflection on one's values as well as the acquisition of new knowledge and skills (Holsapple, 2012). Lasting attitude changes are very difficult to achieve, and even if the service experience is carefully designed and well implemented, change may not occur for participants. Although numerous studies have examined the effects of service-learning experiences on participants and uncovered some of the design features that seem to promote desired outcomes, such as the amount of time participants are engaged in service and the number of structured opportunities for reflection, the field of service-learning could benefit from more rigorous, large-scale studies that investigate the conditions under which desirable attitude change among participants does transpire. This study responds to that need.

Literature Review

How Participation in Service-Learning Affects College Students

Two recent literature reviews have affirmed the host of positive outcomes associated with service-learning experiences. In their meta-analysis of 62 studies in which service-l earning participants were compared to control students, Celio, Durlak, and Dymnicki (2011) found significant gains for service-learning participants in five areas: attitudes toward self; attitudes toward learning; academic performance; civic engagement; and social skills. …

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